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Ethics and WhatsApp

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 19 Nov 2018, 12:28

In a talk to PhD students I heard him give, the sociologist Chris Jenks argued that all projects required the same level of rigorous ethics, regardless of the nature of the participants. He felt there was no such thing as more risk when handling data. 

At the time I didn't agree with him. Conducting research with lesbian, gay and bisexual British Muslim people, I was talking with people who had sometimes had to separate from families and move across the country. This was not just to protect themselves from physical harm. There was a high level of risk that their family's honour would be compromised if their sexuality became known, and that this would damage siblings' and even cousins' marriage chances. I was extremely scrupulous about protecting participants' identities and about the data I held on them and I felt that I did have to take measures which other researchers in less vulnerable communities might not have to. 

However I find myself more in sympathy with him today. My research now tends to be based in my teaching practice. There is a rigorous code around data protection of student records, particularly following the arrival of General Data Protection Regulation. However although we talk among ourselves about best practice in teaching, we aren't necessarily thought to be doing 'research' on it, so there isn't an automatic go-to framework for gaining permission from students to write about our teaching of them. 

My main aim in setting up WhatsApp groups for my students was to give them additional support so they have a better chance of keeping up with their studies, and getting information about how to manage their studies in a timely way. See this blogpost on setting up WhatsApp groups. However, as I began to write up how this was going, I realised I was also engaged in a research project which I not only intended to write up in the future, I was already publicly disseminating material about it. (This blogpost is an update on how my WhatsApp groups are getting on.) I of course did this in an anonymised way, but is that enough? My students don't appear to be 'at risk' in the same way as my participants in the LGB Muslim study, however I still ought to respect their participation in the project in a similar way. 

Well, I feel the best thing to do is to ask my students. Some of them are doing the M.Ed in Inclusive Practice so will be developing their own ethics frameworks to write about their teaching. They will have good insights to share about how I ought to go about advising them on how I am writing up my work with them smile

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